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How to Brilliantly Brainstorm a Topic

Plant the seed and watch a top-notch paper grow.

Learning Benefits

Hover over each Learning Benefit below for a detailed explanation.
Critical Thinking
Decision Making

Make time for it

When you begin a report, you may feel tempted to skip straight to the researching and writing part of the paper. After all, that's when you actually get to complete the assignment and check it off your to-do list — and we all know how good that feels! Before you dive in, consider your topic for a day if it's a short paper or several days if it's a longer assignment. It'll be worth it in the end because you'll spend your time working on something that you care about.


Pick something that interests you

This is the single most important brainstorming step. If you're into sailing, maybe it's World War II watercraft that'll float your boat. If your tastes are tantalized by other cultures, perhaps you could compare traditional foods from two different countries. How yummy would that be? Choosing a topic that interests you is sure to make the work go more smoothly.

It's not always easy to stare at a blank piece of paper and come up with the most interesting topic ever. Here are some ways to spark ideas:

  • Write a list of absolutely every idea you can think of without crossing anything off. When you're done, read over your list and see if there are any gems hiding in there.
  • Flip through your class notes or textbook. Did you cover a topic two months ago that made you curious and want to know more? Here's your chance to investigate something your teacher introduced that you thought was kind of cool.
  • Go to your school or local library, or even your favorite bookstore, and browse the shelves. Being around books gets good ideas flowing. Flip through newspapers and magazines too. Once you're open to ideas, you never know where a good one will jump out at you.
  • Talk to your family and friends. If your grandma lived through the 1930s, an interview with her could bring your paper on the Great Depression alive. You'll probably use books, articles, and the Web for most big projects, but don't forget about additional resources like the people in your life.


Start broad, then narrow it down

When you choose a topic, try not to make it too specific to start out. Maybe the assignment is to write something about a person or an event. That's your broad topic. Then you'll want to narrow down and refine your subject. In fact, you may do this several times in the course of brainstorming and researching your paper.

If you're doing a project on dogs, you probably won't be covering every breed. But finding enough material to appropriately cover the mannerisms of your Chocolate Lab after you feed him at night might be, oh, impossible. Try to find a happy medium of being specific, but leaving room to expand your research. A project on the defining characteristics of Chocolate Labs might be just right.

Deciding what to leave out is as important as the topic you're covering. If you're brainstorming about weather, you're probably not going to cover all the different climate types, every weather-measuring tool, and the average rainfall for all the states. As you brainstorm and research your topic, figure out the specific areas you'll cover and what topics fall outside the scope.


Make sure the resources are out there

Okay, now that you're totally sold on your creative topic idea, it's time for a small reality check. The most interesting topic in the world isn't worth beans if there aren't resources to support it. That said, there's so much good information out there that you shouldn't have a problem. You just need to be sure you can get your hands on what you'll need.

Start with your local or school library. Your friendly librarian may be your single most valuable resource because he'll be able to steer you toward resources you might not have known existed. See what kind of books and back issues of periodicals (newspapers and magazines) the library has. Also check out reliable Web resources, but don't just use the first site that pops up from your basic search. Learn more about researching.

For most papers, you'll probably use secondary sources, someone else's interpretation or viewpoint. These include books or articles about what you're studying. They're great because you get exposed to the ideas of someone who spent a lot of time thinking about and studying your topic.

While there's nothing wrong with using all secondary sources, primary sources can really give your paper an edge. A primary source is an original record — like a document or an interview — from the time you're studying or the viewpoint of someone who was there. Primary sources include letters people wrote, old maps, and audio recordings from the time. You might find these items in a museum, photographed on the Web, in your great aunt's attic, or by talking with relatives.

It's powerful to combine secondary and primary sources in your research, because it allows you to form your own opinion and also to refer to someone else's informed viewpoint.


Don't lose sight of the assignment

Oh, the assignment was for a 3-page paper about a character in a book, but I wrote a 5-page paper about the author. Oops! Reread your assignment at each stage of your brainstorming, researching, and writing to make sure you're fulfilling all your teacher's expectations.

In fact, it's not a bad idea to run your topic by your teacher once you've narrowed it down. She's sure to be impressed that you've given it so much thought and she may have suggestions for how you can make it even stronger.


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